Willem van Otterloo was a Dutch conductor and composer in the 20th century. He is mostly remembered as a conductor and has been featured on numerous recordings with the Residentie Orchestra in the Hague. He is also remembered for his fantastic interpretation ofBerlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. His compositional output is small, as his time was occupied primarily with conducting. Despite its small size, the collection features many quality works.
Willem van Otterloo was born in 1907 in the town of Winterswijk, Netherlands. He was the son of William Frederik van Otterloo, a railway inspector, and Anna Catherina Enerié and grew up in Utrecht. From the age of 8, van Otterloo studied piano with his uncle, George Enderié. At the age of 14, he switched to the cello, which he studied with the solo cellist of the Utrecht City Orchestra, Ludwig Werner; his cello lessons eventually motivated and stimulated him to study at the conservatory. However, van Otterloo first studied medicine at the University of Utrecht for two years before switching to the exclusive study of music at the Amsterdam Conservatory in 1928, where he studied cello with Max Orobio de Castra and composition with Sam Dresden and Hendrik Andriessen. Immediately after graduating, he was offered a job as a cellist at the Utrecht City Orchestra.
In addition to his success on the cello, van Otterloo flourished as a composer. His Suite no. 3 (1932) won a prize in a competition put on by theRoyal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. As a result, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra premiered the work in 1932. Willem Mengelberg was scheduled to conducted the concert, but was sick, giving van Otterloo the opportunity to conduct both the rehearsals and the premiere of his work with the world renowned Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1933, van Otterloo was appointed assistant conductor of the Utrecht City Orchestra, and later in 1937 joint chief conductor with Carl Schuricht. He remained with the orchestra throughout World War II until 1947.
His conducting career continued with operas in Amsterdam before he was appointed conductor of the Residentie Orchestra in the Hague, where he conducted from 1949 until 1973. The Residentie Orchestra flourished under his direction. He was known to conduct all works from memory and treat the orchestra members with respect. He also had a very good ear and demanded technical perfection, and was known for his egalitarian relationship with the orchestra, represented by Otto Ketting's statement: "[Otterloo] was by no means a dictatorial conductor, nor was he a glamour-seeker or showman. The music itself had the highest priority."
Otterloo gladly conducted both contemporary and traditional works and had a preference for orchestral works that were brilliantly orchestrated and featured energetic tempos. The orchestra recorded extensively in the 1950s under the Philips label and toured the United States in 1963. In 1962, van Otterloo was also appointed co-chief director of theNetherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra <>. During this period he also taught conducting at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague.
Van Otterloo moved to Australia in 1967 when he was appointed chief conductor of theMelbourne Symphony Orchestra, a position he only held for two years, before becoming the principal guest conductor of the orchestra. He toured several times with the Melbourne Symphony to North America, establishing Australia’s symphonic reputation in the United States. Van Otterloo was appointed chief conductor of the Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra in 1971. The Australian musicians respected van Otterloo’s musical knowledge, substance, and discipline. During this period he didn’t compose anymore, but pursued his hobby of portrait photography, at which he was also very talented. From 1974 on, van Otterloo also worked in Europe as the chief conductor of the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra. As a guest conductor, he had the opportunity to conduct many famous orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony, Scala Orchestra in Milan, Madrid Symphony, and the Lisbon Symphony Orchestra. His conducting also took him to Buenos Aires, Denmark, Paris, Japan, and South Africa.
Willem van Otterloo was married five times, to four different women (he remarried one of them) and had two sons and three daughters. One of his sons, Rogier van Otterloo, became one of the most successful arrangers and composers of popular music in the Netherlands during the 1970s and 80s. Van Otterloo was also an auto enthusiast and loved driving, but died in a tragic car accident as a passenger in Melbourne in 1978.
In addition to his brilliant conducting career, Otterloo was an accomplished composer though most of his works were written during the first half of his life. His favorite composers and pieces wereBerlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. Some of his works include a symphony (1934-1935) and three suites for orchestra (1931, 1932). His other well-known works includeSymphonietta for 16 wind instruments (1943), which was performed on the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s American tour in 1954,Serenade for brass ensemble, harp, piano, celesta, and percussion (1944), andIntroduction and Allegro for orchestra (1941), which received high praise for its beauty and originality.
Van Otterloo’s Serenade is featured on the Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass album entitledFirst. The work opens in a big and bold manner followed by a very melodic second movement filled with horn and trumpet solos accompanied subtly by the celesta. The third movement is very rhythmic and up-tempo, providing a delightful contrast to the previous solos.
Henk Badings stated in 1936 that what “typical of Van Otterloo [is,] is that his first themes have sharp contours and touching and powerful expression while his second themes are hesitant, wavering, and less expressive.” Later in life, in addition to not having enough time to compose, van Otterloo no long felt in touch with contemporary music as a composer, further giving him reason to stop composing.
During his lifetime, van Otterloo received many international awards and was appointed to the Order of the Nederlandse Leeuw (Lion of the Netherlands), Dannebrog (Denmark), and to the Légion d’honneur (France). In 2009, a biography of his life, written by Niek Nielssen, was presented by the Dutch Music Institute in the Hague.
Header image: courtesy of Donemus Other images: courtesy of Discogs